K2′s Into Thin Air

November 24, 2011

By Nimish Dubey

Jon Krakauer added a whole dimension to mountaineering and travel literature when he wrote Into Thin Air in 1996, describing the disaster that claimed the lives of eight climbers on Mount Everest earlier that year. A dozen years later, eleven climbers died on the second highest peak in the world, K2. As on Everest, nature played a role in the disaster – in 1996, a storm had hit the climbers on the way down, in 2008, a serac collapsed sweeping away ropes that were to be used in the descent. As on Everest twelve years ago, man’s stupidity and obstinacy played a greater role in the disaster. And it is part tat Graham Bowley sets out to reveal in his book on the 2008 K2 disaster, No Way Down: Life And Death on K2. 

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For those not aware of the fact, although K2 is not as tall as Everest, it is considered by many to be far more difficult to climb. In fact, some even consider it to be the most difficult mountain to climb in the world – it has a very high casualty rate. And it is for this reason that when thirty different mountaineers were heading to the peak of K2 in late July, 2008, they decided to meet and co-ordinate their efforts to ensure that no confusion ensued and each one of them made the summit and came down with time to spare. At the end of the meeting, optimism was high as roles had been defined and schedules laid out.

However, on August 1, the day of the push to the summit, things went totally haywire. Ropes that should have been placed to assist climbers were not placed and the climb slowed down to a crawl at an area called the Bottleneck with many climbers actually twiddling their thumbs as the ones before them went ahead at a snail’s pace – shades of what happened on the Hilary Step on Everest in 1996. And even as this is happening a Serb climber unclips his rope to help a colleague only to  fall to his death. A Pakistani porter attempts to recover his body, slips and dies too. As the hours tick by, a few climbers turn back, realising that to return in the darkness would be suicide. Alas, many persist. Eighteen of them made it to the top, little realising that a massive serac had collapsed, tearing away the ropes that were supposed to assist their descent though some of the most tricky and dangerous terrain in the world.

Nine of them returned. Nine did not.

It is this story that Graham Bowley sets out to narrate and while he does not quite possess the skill of Krakauer or the benefit (however dubious) of having actually seen the disaster first-hand, he does manage to deliver a gripping account of what went wrong on K2 that day in August 2008. He has relied mostly on interviews with the survivors and those who were climbing the mountain but turned back and while this does tend to get a bit confusing in the beginning with far too many characters flitting in and out of the narrative, it is worth bearing with for the sake of what follows. For, the story picks up momentum the moment the serac collapses. The focus shifts sharply to the climbers trying to make their way down, making for some riveting reading. A wife sees her husband swept away in front of her, a climber ends up dangling upside down from a rope for hours, one goes almost blind and loses his several times in an attempt to get to safety…we dare you to put the book down at this stage.

All in all, No Way Down is an excellent read for those wanting to know about the 2008 K2 tragedy or just about mountaineering in general – there is some history thrown in too, for those who like their backgrounds! However, where it differs from Krakauer’s masterpiece is in the fact that it seems more of reportage than of analysis. Bowley makes no attempt to explain why experienced mountaineers tried to climb down one of the world’s most dangerous peaks in the night, and there is also no attempt to really look into who was really responsible for things going wrong. He prefers to let the survivors and witnesses do the talking, like a good journalist and is definitely not as opinionated as Krakauer. The result is a book that will tell you what happened but not the author’s take on why it did. Which is not a very bad thing, really, as Bowley tells his story well, aided by some very good photographs, particularly of the crowd at the bottleneck on that fateful day.

Mountaineering fans would do well to pick it up.

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